Websites Highlight Party Lines

Posted December 10, 2010 at 5:46pm

The House IT office is creating prefabricated websites for incoming Members of Congress. But if you’re a Republican, you can’t show interest in the environment, seniors or housing; and if you’re a new Democrat, you can’t highlight the debt, transportation or foreign affairs.

At least not on your first day.

Freshmen were asked to choose three issues each from a limited list to be featured on their official websites that will go live on the first day they are sworn in. Democrats could choose from among 10 and Republicans 11 very different issues.

The lists shared “education” and “veterans,” but appearing only on the Democratic side were topics such as seniors, housing and local issues. Available only to Republicans: transportation, foreign affairs and financial services.

Dan Weiser, spokesman for the House Chief Administrative Officer, said the IT team consulted briefly with the parties before making the lists. “We got some quick input about what should be up there on day one,” he said.

Representatives-elect were asked to submit their three selections to the IT team last month as part of the new Member orientation. The service provides freshmen a base to start from, said Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“CAO worked on a bipartisan basis to identify a sample list of issues that could be used as a basis for the new Member templates,” Steel said. “With this many freshmen, it’s a practical necessity to narrow down choices like that to make sure we’re ready in January.”

But which specific issues showed up on each side of the partisan divide piqued the interest of George Lakoff, a noted cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

He said the lists subtly point to stereotypical ways the parties view policy. It also points to how leadership might frame policy moving forward, he said.

“It’s completely predictable,” he said. As a new Member, “these things tell you through the issues what the moral principles are that you’re supposed to follow. They tell you what world view you’re supposed to have.”

Issues such as seniors and housing point to the progressive value of government involvement in caring for the population, Lakoff said. The emphasis on economic and financial items on the Republican side denotes a belief in laissez-faire economics and self-reliance.

As further evidence of political messaging is the fact that some categories mean the same thing but are worded differently, he said. For instance, Republicans were allowed to choose “health” as a key issue, whereas Democrats can choose “health care.”

“The reason for that distinction is ‘health’ is a personal responsibility, whereas ‘health care’ immediately brings in people caring for other people,” Lakoff said. “That’s the way they’re pitching it.”

Republicans can pick “energy,” Democrats get “energy and environment.”

“Of course, that’s easy,” Lakoff said. Conservatives “say that it’s a phony issue, that environmentalists are nuts.”

The Democratic list features “national security,” while Republicans have “defense and national security.” That could point to another line in the sand, Heritage Foundation Communications Director Rory Cooper said.

“Obviously, conservatives believe in a strong national defense that includes a well-funded and efficient Defense Department,” he said. “I’m sure that they wanted to make that indication that defending ourselves is a part of our national security.”

Cooper also said he’s “shocked” that senior issues, such as Social Security or retirement, are absent from the Republican side, given that most GOP Member sites have a section on it.

Also conspicuously absent from either list are social issues, such as gun laws, abortion and gay marriage.

That might have something to do with the difficulty of how to name those issues, said Tim Hysom, director of technology and communications services for the Congressional Management Foundation. Do you call it gay marriage or preserving the family? Abortion rights or right to life?

“Different offices are going to call it different things,” he said. “That’s where you can really get into the weeds a little more than the CAO wants to on day one, or even more than the parties want to presume for their Members.”

Still, the political implications of the lists might be much ado about nothing, he said, especially since Members can change the issue list as soon as they take control of the sites.

“Until the Members take office, there’s not a lot [the CAO] can determine about what their policy priorities are going to be,” he said. “It’s probably an attempt to simplify what the offerings are for day one and let each Member tailor it to their own choosing later on.”

In the past, the CMF has advocated for uniformity in how subject matter is grouped on Congressional websites to make it easier for visitors to find specific issues, Hysom said.

The idea didn’t get traction because Congress isn’t monolithic, he said. The idiosyncrasies of how the Members present issues have to do with the specific interests represented in their districts.

But for new Members, those will have to wait until day two.